A couple of years ago, I met with Michigan State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift to talk about the current state of the labor movement. During that conversation, she asked me what advice I had, if any, with regard to improving the labor movement in Michigan. I told her two things: change the face of labor in terms of people’s perceptions of what a “union member” looks like. The second was to infuse the labor movement with new blood and new ideas, particularly from young people who are reasonably new to the workforce.
The first bit of advice is important because people outside of the labor movement need to realize that union members are more than just burly hard hat-wearing construction workers and truckers. They are teachers and office workers and police officers and fire fighters and trash collectors and so much more. In other words, they are a cross-section of our society and they are our friends, family, and neighbors.
The second bit of advice is, without hyperbole, the only way the labor movement will survive in this country.
Fortunately, the AFL-CIO gets that. Through their “Young Worker” program, they are taking on the challenge of bringing up new leaders from their membership, giving them the skills and tools they need to succeed, and empowering them to have a voice and a role in the direction of the labor movement.
I sat down to talk to Tahir Duckett, the National Young Workers Coordinator for the AFL-CIO, who was in Michigan last week for the Young Worker Leadership Institute that took place in Dearborn. What he told me gives me hope that the labor movement understands that it needs to evolve in order to survive and is taking the right steps to ensure that it remains an important part of American society.
If you go into any union hall meeting these days, the average age of the members is likely to be 40-years old and up. More likely, you’ll see a lot of 50-60 year olds with a smattering of younger people. Accordingly, the AFL-CIO loosely defines “young workers” as those between the ages 18 and 35. Tahir told me that when he attended his first AFL-CIO national convention and went to a young workers social hour, there only a handful of people there. Today, that is changing.
The AFL-CIO launched its Young Workers program in 2009. Today, there are approximately 50 Young Worker groups around the country and the organization is committed to tripling that to 150 by the time of their next national convention in 2017. These young leaders work in spaces that are often separate from the traditional structure of the “seasoned workers” such as the Central Labor Councils. The idea is to give them a place to learn and grow that they take personal ownership of. It’s a space where they activate younger workers, arm them with the resources and skills they need to succeed, and get them involved in issue campaigns and other organizing efforts to help workers who are being taken advantage of.
The AFL-CIO has held leadership training institutes for its membership for years. However, only recently have the created a special program for young workers and they are taking it VERY seriously. They have the same talented folks who developing curriculum as they do for their traditional leadership training and the training institute is actually two days longer.
At the Young Worker Leadership Institute in Dearborn last week, Tahir told me the 40 or so attendees spent six days learning both soft and hard leadership skills. These include things like:
- Vision development
- Learning how to articulate and communicate their goals and vision in order to activate others
- Developing issue and organizing campaigns
- Conducting power analysis and developing relationships and coalitions that can change the balance of power in their own direction
- Communications training
- Common sense economics and communicating who is actually responsible for negative economic impacts on workers
- How to take back what they’ve learned and teach it to others – so called “train the trainers” training
Learning how to do on-camera interviews and how to interact with the media including how to generate earned media with their events
The Young Worker Leadership Institute doesn’t just differ in the age of its participants. The AFL-CIO is making a concerted effort to engage women and people of color and a full third of this years participants were not white men. There was even a 4-hour session on equity, inclusion and how to recognize and avoid the pitfalls “privilege” – white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, e.g. – that can alienate potential members and allies.
Tahir told me that the AFL-CIO is giving up a bit of control with the Young Workers program because they are run largely by the young workers themselves. “It’s a new day,” he said. “It’s all about building power for our workers, in general, but especially for our young workers both inside and outside the labor movement. We can’t afford to be complacent and to sit back and allow things to happen TO us.”
It is indeed a new day and the labor movement needs to evolve and change to accommodate that. Fortunately, at least in the case of the AFL-CIO coalition of unions, that is exactly what they are doing.
UPDATE: Here’s a video released after last year’s national AFL-CIO convention that emphasizes their commitment to the development of new leadership among young workers: